Thursday, November 04, 2010

Political Mind - prophetic or controversial ?

When I read first chapters of the George's LakoffThe Political Mind” during this year holidays I was almost elated. It played the tune that sounded true not only in American tuning but also in European one and in my Polish tuning as well. I found it almost prophetic and eye openning.

Having the subtitle „Why you can't understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain” the book uncovers the role of specific language and its structural forms in politics and shows that this role is much deeper than we usually think — that it goes deeply into our brains and moulds our minds...

The book starts by the recall to Anna Nicole Smith case. Of course her life and death story was not the main reason of the interest. Rather the typical "frames" and "scripts" within which her story was told, are of the author interest. The frames and scripts of Anna Nicole Smith life were mostly untrue. Yet they spread to such extent that many people identified with them, despite their almost obvious unreliability. The narrative about Anna Nicole Smith was so important that Lakoff cites David Rieff: „understanding the importance of Anna Nicol Smith will help us understand politics”. And this leads us to interesting part of the book where „conceptual frames”, „semantic fields” or „specific scripts” are used to understand a phenomenon instead of the more deeper knowledge about the phenom itself.

This is typical to politics. And in the XXI century politics with pervasive use of digital media, these frames and scripts spread even faster than before. Lakoff tries to prove that it is not self-fuelling process. Behind most important political frames and narratives of American politics stand the conscious and systematic activity of conservatives. The book lists many examples where certain popular narratives (like that about „war on terror”) were just created to serve a particular goal. When Lakoff speaks about American politics, it is clear he stands on democratic (or how he called them "progressive") positions. He sees his mission, the mission of this book in uncovering the problem:


„Conservatives have excelled at articulating their values and ideas. It is time for progressives to do the same. My job here is to unlock the cognitive unconscious, to take progressive thought off the leash and to draw an accurate picture of conservative thought for the sake of comparison.”

He first finds the source of the polarisation in the family values. By almost equating the empathy with progressive values and authority with conservatives values, Lakoff tries to explain how our family upbringing can lead us to take a specific position on the political scene. Behind this conclusion is the assumption of the deep role of specific brain structures amplified by the specific family models (like Strict Father Model or Nurturant Parent Model) so that we select empathy or authority as the ground of our certain political choices.

This way of thinking is then extended in the analysis of the role of the brain in Political Ideologies. He uncovers certain metaphors that are used by politicians (purity, rottenness, light, darkness) when speaking about morality — and shows how deep is the importance of these metaphors in the formation of political ideology. The working of these metaphors is very often unconscious and some of them have deeply „embodied” aspect.

The central part of the book shows Lakoff way of thinking in practice. He analysies the role of some traumatic metaphors like „The War on Terror” or „Privateering” or some media created stereotypes (e.g. „sons of the welfare queen”) in politics and in achieving certain political goals.

To this moment I liked his book. Certainly its main purpose, i.e. to wake up our awareness of the the role of certain brain activities, particularly — unconscious activities and their role in our political decisions — is achieved. And I'm thankful to Lakoff for that. When I looked through his eyes on my domestic, Polish politics and discovered how many frames and (invented) narratives started to live their own life and influenced politics, even if they were based on false stories. Take the metaphor of „undercover agent” almost synonymic with an evil-doer of communist times and using this metaphor against Lech Walesa by his political opponents....

But on that level, or at these kind of reasoning the value of the book ends...


Let me now list issues which I have against the book. These issues are serious and, in my opinion, they diminish the value of the book — which could be a great contribution to the current political discussion. Could be. But is not.

First, I understand George Lakoff is scientist. While there is nothing bad in scientists to have political opinions and express them openly, it is quite disturbing when the certain political views and biases put shadow on the science the scientists cultivates. As an example take the way in which Lakoff calls political oponents of the US scene. He does not call them „democrats” vs. „republicans” or even „liberals” vs. „conservatives”. He calls the first „progressives” and the later — „conservatives”. By making this delicate and almost unnoticeable shift, he puts a certain frame and certain narration into motion. He tries to amplify his own political agenda by the scientific method (brain science and linguistics) he tries to say it is objective! His „progressive” narration about Democrats is like many narrations and metaphors a bit untrue, to say the least. It ignores the fact that the first, and only one by name, Progressive Party was actually formed by a split in Republican Party! Of course, we can't call today's republicans „progressives”, but we shouldn't speak about political opponents using certain frames and labels that are not quite true... (BTW, I am, like Lakoff, on the side of Democrats :-) )

Second, I'm very sympathetic to the current progress of brain science. I'm far from the understanding of the mind as something disembodied and purely logical. But the current state of the brain science does not allow now for many conclusions that Lakoff makes. For example by literally painting the metaphors as the results of certain synaptic connections — and speaking of abstract context as of result of the another physical connections is such great oversimplification that authors conclusions (even after his acknowledgment of the oversimplification) about important political consequences of brain structures seems to be naive.

I'm not a brain scientist. I'm physicist and chemist. But I read a lot about brain science and I know the simple fact — our current science is still very far from understanding the mind and the brain — its home and cradle. The way Lakoff reduces politics to brain mechanisms is naive — to say the list.

Finally, I was shocked by the naivety of the final chapter „What if it works” where Lakoff gives quite bombastic predictions how fantastic would be the politics if we all apply his way of thinking about brain and politics. This is perhaps the worst part of the book, and in some sense it close to the bombastic parts of Neuro Evolution... I know it was typical to scientists of Enlightenment age (which, ironically, he critisises) to predict bright future if their theories worked ...


But we also know from history how it often ended, despite beautiful words and lips full of empathy. This is why I find the book controversial to the same extent as it is prophetic ....

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